Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Martyr and the Mischief-Maker
(Note: I posted a slightly more polite--but still too mean for the faithful--version of this entry at Daily Kos: see here if you're wondering how this was received by the lefty sheep)

The Democratic polemicist David Sirota recently wrote on Daily Kos asking the same plaintive question that Democrats have been wondering for almost forty years now: Where is Our Bobby Kennedy?

It's an odd question for Sirota to ask. This is the guy who helped turn the liberal challenge against Joe Lieberman in Connecticut into something of a jihad, who's assailed Barack Obama as an empty-suit sellout, and who's constantly pushing every Democrat on the national scene to be more absolutist, more unyielding, more extreme, more confrontational. He's the enemy of equivocation, compromise and inconstancy--all traits that the flesh-and-blood RFK, as opposed to the sainted memory of the man, showed throughout his too-brief career in public life.

Remember the circumstances by which Robert F. Kennedy went from a talented but ambivalently regarded inside political operator to the great martyr of the modern American left. The loss of his brother humanized RFK, transforming him from "JFK's Haldeman" best known for his sharp elbows in the 1960 campaign and his stint working for Joe McCarthy, into a figure of popular sympathy. But that didn't immediately translate into power: Kennedy's strange journey in 1964, running a carpetbagger Senate campaign in New York simultaneously on the coattails of and at arm's-length from LBJ, ended in victory, but he won by a full two million votes less than Johnson's margin in the Empire State.

Over the next three years, he tiptoed toward and back away from the mantle of progressive leadership from within the Democratic Party, pushed on the one hand by idealistic young aides like Peter Edelman (who remains a great progressive champion in his own right today) and on the other by the old politicos who'd advised his brother and were keeping an eye on the 1972 presidential campaign for Bobby. Kennedy's equivocation on Vietnam and his personal rivalry with Johnson captured press attention, and his occasional brilliant speech on South African apartheid and Appalachian poverty indicated some growth and deepening in his character. But he was neither a powerful lawmaker nor an unambiguous public champion--more show horse than work horse.

When it became clear that a large faction within the dominant Democratic coalition, led by the liberal New York activist Allard Lowenstein, was going to push an intra-party challenge to Johnson in 1968, Bobby was the man they wanted. But, with the Sorensons and O'Donnells whsipering in his ear to keep his powder dry for '72, he wouldn't commit--and it fell to Eugene McCarthy, who had his own personal animus against LBJ, to pick up the standard. The David Sirotas of that time eagerly and entirely gave themselves over to Gene; the Tet Offensive in January 1968 transformed the debate over Vietnam; and McCarthy nearly upset Johnson in the New Hampshire primary, coming close to a majority of the votes and winning most of the delegates. Only then did RFK join the race; soon after that, LBJ withdrew, and the progressives enjoyed four days of bliss before Dr. King was assassinated and the horrors of 1968 began in earnest.

If Sirota had been active in the mid-to-late 1960s, I have absolutely no doubt that he, of all people, would have assailed RFK as an unprincipled sellout, a vampire sucking at the lifeblood of the great and good McCarthy who was trying to justify, or at very best make an insignificant gesture of atonement toward, the deeply immoral Vietnam policy Bobby himself had helped craft as the sinister helpmeet to his similarly unprincipled brother. Two scions of the Establishment, Sirota would have called them, trading on their looks and charisma to manipulate the emotions of the people toward the goal of perpetuating the power of monsters like their father.

It need hardly be said that the Kennedys' heroism is in no small part a product of their untimely deaths; they did a fair amount of nasty stuff, as was noted at the time. JFK's 1960 victory was greatly aided not just by Mayor Daley's shenanigans in Illinois, but by just enough racist pandering to keep the South in the Democratic column. And even in RFK's last campaign in California, he made some of the same appeals to soft racism--implying that McCarthy would favor building tenements in white suburban communities outside LA--that would help Nixon win the election.

Sirota would have hammered Kennedy on these points, on all the Kennedys' compromises and corner-cuttings. Just as, if he'd lived in the time of FDR, or Lincoln, he would have gone after those presidents for their moral failings. That those men might have known what they were doing--just as, perhaps, did RFK, or similarly flawed heroes of today--never occurs to the infallible Sirota types.

What Sirota constantly fails to understand--as was never more evident than in his imbecilic and infantile Nation hit piece on Barack Obama a few months back--is that the (notionally) principled heroes of the Gene McCarthy or Russ Feingold type are history's lovable losers: the people who at most can set the stage for a pragmatic leader to come in and accomplish real change--and at least as often, in their unassailably good intentions, pave the road to hell. Consider the possibility that the McCarthy and RFK challenges to the undeniably flawed Lyndon Johnson opened the door to Nixon's election and the disasters, from the perpetuation of the war to Watergate and the permanent degradation of our politics, that followed.

Yes, the world needs Charles Sumner types to lay down the occasional moral marker. But it takes a Lincoln--and, dear lord, how Sirota would have flayed his habeus-suspending, slavery-equivocating ass--to bring the country toward that better place. That the leader can't get them as far, or as fast, as one might prefer, is the sad reality of history... but that these people are subsequently venerated suggests that they did the best they could, and on balance succeeded brilliantly.

I can't imagine a leader more foreign to Sirota's absolutist sensibility than the late Robert F. Kennedy.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Batter Up: Reform or Retreat?
As is often the case, Stephen Colbert aptly summed up one of the predicaments the new Democratic congressional majority will face in his "The Word" segment the other night. Urging Democrats to "Play Ball," Colbert sets out why the newly empowered party should put aside its pledges to curb the power of lobbyists and rein in the ethical transgressions that clearly contributed to the Republicans' downfall earlier this month. "You can't reform lobbying unless you stay in power--so if you want to end politicians taking money from lobbyists, you need to take money from lobbyists so you can stay in power to end it!"

The faux-Fox pundit pithily sums up one of the two dilemmas here: is there more to gain, in terms of power perpetuation, by pushing back against the abuses of the system, or by co-opting them? He addresses the other, normative, question by implication: should Democrats try to do the right thing even if it works against their own parochial interests?

My answer, of course, is "of course." The value of a Democratic congressional majority has three main aspects: one is to block the worst instincts and ideas of the Deciderer in the White House, another is to try and shore up the sagging foundations of American governance, and the third is to shift public priorities and the resources to make change happen. Of the three, the last is what the press focuses on, to the extent they focus on substance at all: Democrats will raise the minimum wage, try to amend Medicare Part D so the government can negotiate drug prices, begin redeployment out of Iraq, and so forth. This is connected to the first part: without a rubber-stamp Congress, Bush can't really launch any additional wars, destroy the social safety net, put cronies in top positions, et cetera (though it's worth noting that Michael "Brownie" Brown was confirmed as FEMA director while Democrats controlled the Senate, thanks in large part to our pal Joe Lieberman).

But without progress on Front #2, gains on the other two fronts are tenuous and provisional at best. The Republicans have locked in an institutional advantage by aggressively courting the lobbyist community, which multiplied many times over between 2001 and the present and eventually mutated past all previously held restrictions of propriety and common sense. The result has been a fundamental perversion of policymaking, with laws substantially crafted for and written by the most powerful interests in the country.

So where stands the reform push? In flux, according to the New York Times:

Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate, mindful that voters in the midterm election cited corruption as a major concern, say they are moving quickly to finalize a package of changes for consideration as soon as the new Congress convenes in January.

Their initial proposals, laid out earlier this year, would prohibit members from accepting meals, gifts or travel from lobbyists, require lobbyists to disclose all contacts with lawmakers and bar former lawmakers-turned-lobbyists from entering the floor of the chambers or Congressional gymnasiums.

None of those measures would overhaul campaign financing or create an independent ethics watchdog to enforce the rules. Nor would they significantly restrict earmarks, the pet projects lawmakers can insert anonymously into spending bills, which have figured in several recent corruption scandals and attracted criticism from members in both parties. The proposals would require disclosure of the sponsors of some earmarks, but not all.

Now, though, some Democrats say their election is a mandate for more sweeping changes. Many newly elected candidates, citing scandals involving several Republican lawmakers last year, made Congressional ethics a major issue during the campaign.
Sweeping changes, however, may be a tough sell within the party. Representative John P. Murtha, Democrat of Pennsylvania, was embarrassed by disclosures last week that he had dismissed the leadership proposals with a vulgarity at a private meeting. But Mr. Murtha is hardly the only Democrat who objects to broad changes. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who will oversee any proposal as the incoming chairwoman of the rules committee, for example, said she was opposed an independent Congressional ethics watchdog. “If the law is clear and precise, members will follow it,” she said in an interview. “As to whether we need to create a new federal bureaucracy to enforce the rules, I would hope not.”

Other Democratic lawmakers argued that the real ethical problem was the Republicans, not the current ethics rules, so the election alleviated the need for additional regulations. “There is an understanding on our side that the Republicans paid a price for a lot of the abuses that evolved,” said Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, referring to earmarks.

Frankly, Frank should know better. (Sorry.) The Founders understood that human nature was not to be trusted (and of course they weren't overly fond of parties in the first place): laws, not the judgment of individuals, were to guide the behavior of public servants. This is a less blatantly evil variation on the argument that there's no need to explicitly ban torture, because the enlightened administration of George W. Bush simply wouldn't do such things. Except, of course, he would, and similarly some number of Democratic legislators will bend any too-lax rules and standards to their breaking point and, almost inevitably, beyond. Crooked Democratic Rep. William Jefferson isn't even gone from Congress yet--hopefully he'll lose his runoff next month--and it already looks as if the party might have forgotten the lessens his crimes should have taught them.

And Feinstein, who has legal but shady ties to all manner of corporate concerns and lobbyists, shows her colors by pushing against any strong enforcement measures. Hopefully a large enough number of her colleagues will show more common sense. Chellie Pingree, herself an unsuccessful Senate candidate from 2002, points the way here:

Advocates of an overhaul believe the reaction to the Congressional embarrassments make the Democratic takeover of Capitol Hill their best chance for significant change since the aftermath of Watergate, when Congress created the presidential campaign finance system. But they consider the Democratic proposals just the beginning of a cleanup.

“A ban on gifts, meals, corporate jet flights — a lot of that resonates with the public because people think there is just a lot of free giveaways in Congress,” said Chellie Pingree, president of the ethics advocacy group Common Cause. “A lot of this is sort of skirting the issue of how campaign funds are shaping the legislative process.”

Ms. Pingree noted that the scandals of the last Congress arose from actions that were illegal but went undetected for years because of lack of oversight. “Are they going to enforce the rules?” she asked.

Spurred by the election results, several Democrats are pushing bigger changes. Mr. Obama, for example, is proposing an independent Congressional ethics enforcement commission.

Ideally, the way this works is that the two parties engage in a virtuous cycle of "can you top this?" on the subject of process reform. There's almost no chance, however, that the Republicans will play: corporate corruption is their main raison d'etre, and it probably would (and hopefully will) take a succession of "thumpins" before the erstwhile Party of Lincoln shakes free of its many negative norms and associations (I'll probably write more about this soon). McCain might pick up the reform mantle--but it looks to me like his Republican partisanship has long since trumped his better instincts for change, and the only reforms he's now interested in are ones that just would happen to hurt the Democrats more than his own party (like banning 527s).

One wonders if this could be Obama's window. Between a possible emergence as the new champion of ethics reform and his overtures to some of the less aggressive and dogmatic elements on the Religious Right, the senator is staking out some very interesting ground. I'm personally more interested in the destination--cleaning up Congress--than the journey; but if the senator's own ambition is fueling his push for more thoroughgoing reform, that's pretty much how the Founders drew it up.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Skullduggery, Parts I and II
Last week's announcement by Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) that he would seek the Majority Leader post, and his endorsement Sunday by House Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, sets the stage for the Democrats to conduct some of those high-profile pattycake-Shakespearean court intrigues that the Republicans so often indulged in while they held the majority. (They’ll continue to have their own, and indeed have already begun, but when you’re out of power nobody really cares, as the Dems have long known.)

The Houses of Pelosi, Murtha and (Steny) Hoyer have seen their fates inextricably intertwined, their ambitions in constantly shifting patterns of opposition and alignment, virtually since they all joined the national political scene, and intensely since the House Democratic Leadership began to shift in the first years of this decade. This recent Washington Monthly profile of Hoyer, written a few months back with the view that he likely would claim the Majority Leader position if the Democrats won, lays out the ugly history: Hoyer and Pelosi have been rivals for decades (from her Baltimore antecedents), Hoyer and Murtha have long detested each other, Murtha gave crucial support to Pelosi in a Whip race a few years back and indicated earlier this year that he wanted the Leader position). Pelosi, whose leadership style evidently has been marked by what rivals might describe as paranoia and vindictiveness, was just helping her ally and gently pushing back her old rival.

Because of that reputation, I have the weird feeling Pelosi’s support will be decisive, if she wants it to be. Behind the scenes, she’ll lean on the members to support Murtha; she determines committee assignments now, she’s got control over whatever potential pork there will be in the next budget (and presumably it’ll be plenty; these people hopefully won’t be as rapacious as the Republicans—-and if they are, they’ll be nailed for it—-but they’re still politicians and trying to lock in a majority), and she has a long memory. She won’t lean on everybody; she’ll want to let Hoyer save face. But she’ll push enough otherwise more or less indifferent members to back her guy.

Then the race will be on to define “Jack” Murtha.

If you’re not familiar with Murtha’s life and career, in some respects he’s got the perfect story and profile to serve as a high-visibility Democrat in a time of anxiety over national security. Murtha was a Marine who served with distinction both as a young man in Korea and a late-thirty-something in Vietnam. When he publicly came out against the Iraq war last year, it changed the whole tenor of the debate: suddenly it was safe, or safer, for Democrats to broadcast their opposition. He’s a conservative Democrat from an old union district in Western PA, known for the high regard in which he’s held by current and former military leaders and his bullish determination to advance the interests of the defense community.

That last sentence, though, should give you a hint why the Republicans would like to define Murtha. He comes with serious ethical questions, some very similar at least in atmosphere to the Abramoff-related corruption charges that did so damage to Republican hopes this year. And he sort of looks like an old-timey crooked pol.

The Democrats obviously want Murtha’s credibility on security issues, and perhaps as a signal-bearer that conservative-ish blue-collar guys should feel at home in today’s Democratic Party. And maybe-—this could be the genius element—-they figure that virtually every potential Republican critic can be counter-attacked by exposing their own strong ties to this and that lobby. But his ascension could allow the Republicans, if they can get Murtha’s ethics-question storyline into the mainstream fast enough—-and do so without seeming to attack his personal character, as that idiotic hag Mean Jean Schmidt did—-to actually present themselves as the reformers and ideologues they claimed to be twelve years ago. That's exciting not only for "the base," which has bought into the Gingrich mythos, but also for a certain kind of pundit that, hearkening back to the glory days of Newt and Armey, gets misty-eyed like an old Bolshevik 45 years ago thinking fondly paternal thoughts about Castro.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Nothing Left to Lose
I always figured the only reason Lincoln Chafee remained a Republican was that he thought a change of party would dishonor the memory of his father John, a legendary public servant who served Rhode Island in the Senate from 1976 until his death in 1999. The story of the younger Chafee is, to my read, among the sadder political tales of the last decade or so. A Republican in one of the country's most Democratic states, Lincoln Chafee was in a sense selling back bits of the public esteem his father had enjoyed in return for his own political viability. He talked like a Democrat, cast a lot of high-profile votes like a Democrat (against the war, against right-wing judicial nominees, etc), and famously even chose not to vote for George W. Bush in 2004 (writing in a vote for Bush 41).

This year, he repeatedly found himself in the strangest of circumstances, narrowly fending off a ferocious primary challenge from a hard-core conservative with a massive influx of resources from the national Republican establishment Chafee had all but repudiated and then losing Tuesday to a solid but unspectacular progressive Democrat despite sustained high approval ratings from his Ocean State constituents. Watching the returns, it gave me satisfaction but no pleasure to see Linc go down; as I wrote Monday night, this was a parliamentary vote, and we had to boot his party. If he'd changed his registration in 2003--as I still think he might have, if Paul Wellstone had lived and won the victory that would have left the Senate tied 50-50--he would have won 70 percent or more the other night and essentially secured his father's old seat for as long as he wanted it.

Oddly, Chafee evidently is considering making the switch now--years after his political self-interest would have been best served by doing so:

Two days after losing a bid for a second term in an election seen as a referendum on President Bush and the Republican Party, Sen. Lincoln Chafee said he was unsure whether he'd remain a Republican.

"I haven't made any decisions. I just haven't even thought about where my place is," Chafee said at a news conference Thursday when asked whether he would stick with the Republican Party or switch to be an independent or Democrat.

When asked if his comments meant he thought he might not belong in the Republican Party, he replied: "That's fair."
When asked whether he felt that his loss may have helped the country by switching control of power in Congress, he replied: "To be honest, yes."

"The people have spoken all across America. They want the Democrats and Republicans to work together," Chafee added. "I think the president now is going to have to talk to the Democrats. I think that's going to be good for America."

A lifelong Republican who succeeded his father, the late John Chafee, in the U.S. Senate, Chafee said he waged a lonely campaign to try to bring the party to the middle. He described attending weekly Thursday lunches with fellow Republican senators and standing up to argue his point of view, often alone.

"There were times walking into my caucus room where it wasn't fun," he said.

Chafee seems to blame the national party for his loss, and at this late point he evidently feels no reason to hold back: today, after Bush re-nominated belligerent John "Yosemite" Bolton for a permanent appointment as U.N. Ambassador, Chafee essentially ensured that Bolton would not be confirmed.

Sen. Lincoln Chafee (news, bio, voting record), R-R.I., who was defeated by Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse on Tuesday, told reporters in Rhode Island that he would continue opposing Bolton. That would likely deny Republicans the votes needed to move Bolton's nomination from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to the full Senate.

"The American people have spoken out against the president's agenda on a number of fronts, and presumably one of those is on foreign policy," Chafee said. "And at this late stage in my term, I'm not going to endorse something the American people have spoke out against."
In 2005, Chafee wavered on his support for Bolton, citing concerns at one point about Bolton's tie to a government investigation into faulty prewar intelligence on Iraq. In September, Chafee — who was in a tight re-election race — said he would oppose Bolton's nomination until the administration answered questions about its policy in the Middle East, which in effect delayed any vote until after the elections.

If Chafee finally does sever his ties to Republican Party, he'll have as much right as any pol in recent memory to paraphrase Ronald Reagan and say, "I didn't leave the Republican Party; the Republican Party left me."

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

We Won. Now What?
Today was the most beautiful 40-degree rainy November day I can remember, even if I didn't join it until about noon after staying up nearly til 4 waiting for someone to call Montana. The Democrats won the House by a substantial margin, evidently have won the Senate--it's difficult to see how the canvassing or even a recount can lift Felix Macacawitz over my man Jim Webb--and now control a majority of governorships and either a majority or a plurality of statehouses. Whether or not Donald Rumsfeld would have resigned regardless of yesterday's outcome, the two events certainly will be linked in the public mind, and together they tell a story of a war policy that was first repudiated by the sovereign people, and then abandoned by its architects.

A collection of first impressions and second thoughts:

  • After 12 years in a defensive crouch, Democrats can stand up and begin to go on the offensive. But--to beat the metaphor into a bloody pulp--they haven't stretched those muscles in a long, long time. It will be interesting to see what they have to offer in the way of a concrete positive agenda. Speaker-presumptive Pelosi's 100 Hour Plan is a good and wholly logical place to start, but it’s still remedial/ameliorative, fixing Republican foul-ups rather than launching something fresh.

  • Figuratively speaking, more monsters (Santorum, Burns, evidently Allen; Sherwood, Weldon, the ghosts of Foley, DeLay and Ney) were destroyed yesterday, and more good men and women elected (Tester, McCaskill, Klobuchar, evidently Webb; Sestak, Gillibrand) than in any election I can remember-—though ’98 was close, with D’Amato and Faircloth going down. The Congress certainly will be a better place with its better composition and to call those results satisfying would be a severe understatement.

  • With control of a majority of governorships and a plurality or majority of statehouses, the Democrats now can substantially dictate the action at the state level. Just as the 1920s saw the runup to the New Deal in states' progressive experiments with social insurance, market regulation and labor force interventions, the late ‘00s could see the same as governors like Spitzer, Patrick, Richardson, Rendell and Granholm either take over or return to office in stronger position. Both for their own ambitions and the larger project of building a new national governance agenda for Democrats, these governors should have a very interesting 2-4 years.

  • Big as “the wave” was, it could have been bigger—-I counted at least a half-dozen House races where tough Democratic challengers got 49 percent and barely lost. This included races in Ohio, Connecticut, and New York, where reports of the political demise of moderate Republicans in districts slightly to either side of 50/50 were greatly exaggerated. This should be seen as a signal from the electorate that they want bipartisanship--and hopefully between their political near-death experiences and the shattering of the unitary Republican model, these Republicans reps will do the right thing and be freer to vote their consciences without fear of reprisal from a goon like Tom DeLay. If so, they’ll win again in two years with more room to spare; if not, the Democrats will come at them much harder next time and, barring a change in the broad context (or something really dumb like Hillary Clinton atop the ticket), probably win some of those seats.

  • The Democratic caucus is both much bigger and much more ideologically diverse than yesterday, and Democrats now have power in places where they haven’t been heard from in many years--since 1994, in many cases. Unless they’re idiots, this will push the party more toward the center and ensure an agenda focused on meat-and-potatoes economic issues and pragmatism in foreign affairs, rather than the hubristic cultural liberalism that always seems to screw us. While cultural liberalism perhaps arises from our best instincts and principles-—equal opportunity, respect for differences, self-determination—-in practice it often looks ugly and elitist. Before we take up these fights again, we need to figure out better tactics; in the meantime, the focus should be on reducing unwanted pregnancies, ensuring equal civil rights for gays and gay couples, and respecting religion in the public square while resolutely defending the church/state wall. (If I were a Democratic strategist today, I'd actually urge trying to figure out a way to co-opt the "faith-based initiative"--maybe by emphasizing the positive potential role of religion in strengthening marriages and lowering the divorce rate.)

  • After his disappointing win, Joe Lieberman-for-Lieberman has the balance of Senate power in his hands. But this is a two-edged sword: he can do a lot of damage to his reputation and legacy by giving in to his more narcissistic instincts. I'm now cautiously optimistic that he'll choose the pragmatic course of caucusing with the Democrats rather than join the sinking ship of the Bush administration or giving the Republicans a tenuous Senate majority that, as of today, couldn't have very strong hopes of lasting past 2008 (when Democrats should win Colorado and Minnesota at the least) in any event.

  • Reading the transcript of Bush’s remarks today, he comes off as more conciliatory than he evidently seemed to those watching. If he keeps to this note, though, I expect his approval ratings to rise into the high 40s or even low 50s. Democrats should proceed with caution--while keeping in mind that he’s now the lamest of ducks. In other words: be polite, be respectful, ignore him to the furthest extent possible, and use targeted hearings (see below) to extend the longer-term case against his disastrous governance style and the deep flaws of right-wing ideology.

  • Between Jon Tester’s win in Montana and the defeat of the draconian South Dakota abortion ban, interior west libertarianism is evidently alive and well, and no longer particularly Republican. Obviously this is a big opportunity for Democrats, and could advance the presidential hopes of another big winner last night: New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson.

  • If the Democrats are smart, they will focus congressional hearings and investigations in two areas only: war profiteering and the politicization of the bureaucracy. I defy any of the harshest right-wing pundits to defend the misdeeds of politically connected contractors that charge the government $50 for a six-pack of soda and serve dirty water while billing the taxpayer on a "cost-plus" basis that offers every incentive to overcharge. And while it won't get as much broad attention, it's important that the Democrats show there are consequences to tossing out experts in favor of apparatchiks in federal agencies from EPA to the Iraq Provisional Authority.

  • On the Rumsfeld resignation, it’s an acknowledgement that the war policy has failed and the “course” will be changed. Between presumptive new SecDef Bob Gates and the so-called Baker Commission, we have a Clark Clifford and it’s March 1968 all over again. Interesting aspect to this is that when Gates comes up for Senate confirmation hearings (probably under Democratic control--anyone know who the committee chair would be? Biden?), the war will be in some sense "re-litigated." Avoiding this was one of the big reasons, supposedly, why the administration wanted to keep Rumsfeld on. I guess their risk/reward calculus changed. Since Gates isn't tainted by association with the runup to the war, and the Democrats will want to show a conciliatory face, I suspect he'll be confirmed very quickly and by a wide margin. But the Senators will have their say on the war, and probably the administration will get it from both sides: Hagel and Warner among others will have choice words.

That's all for now. After six years, it's pretty nice to feel like I have some representation in Washington again.

(And, oh yeah: I did steal this post title from Taegan Goddard's book.)

Monday, November 06, 2006

Election Eve: Two Thoughts and a Complaint
First of all, I keep thinking there must be some great drinking game out there I could come up with for watching the returns tomorrow night. But thus far, bupkis. It's just not that interesting to go with "sip whenever Chris Matthews says 'macaca'; chug whenever Norah O'Donnell says '72-Hour Plan'."

On a hopefully more substantive note, I wonder how much of the electorate realizes the way our political system works now. It's not necessarily permanent, but the major political development of the last 12 years has been that the institutions established by the Founding Fathers no longer work the way they intended. Where as recently as 1993-1994, a Democratic Congress restrained and blocked a Democratic President, it's now almost unimaginable that Republicans at least could privilege institutional loyalties above partisan ones. In essence, we have taken on a parliamentary system; the individual candidates, their virtues and shortcomings, matter much less than the letters after their names.

I don't think people in the media or the general public really want to acknowledge this, because the unspoken (and accurate) view that partisan politics is kind of dirty and ugly remains strong and we like to think of our public officials as human beings rather than unthinking instruments of a broad worldview. And there was a serious notion, again as late as the 1990s, that parties didn't matter very much and were, if anything, increasingly less important. But in the age of hyper-polarization, where the parties command vast resources that can make or break the viability of a campaign and centralized power players with long memories and the inclination to bear a grudge can dictate the next 20 years of one's career, they do, and maybe moreso.

So while Bush isn't technically on the ballot tomorrow, as the head of an essentially unitary Republican Party, the election is and should be almost solely a referendum on his job performance and that of his congressional enablers. And by any objective standard, the verdict there shouldn't be a hard one to reach.

And now the complaint:

I live in Brooklyn, where to my knowledge I won't cast a single meaningful vote tomorrow: all the races seem to be foregone conclusions. Worse, every Democratic candidate on my ballot aside from Eliot Spitzer, who's about to be elected governor by acclimation, is more or less repulsive. We've got:

--Hillary Clinton, Senate. Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation, who's more interested in trying to make herself palatable to people who detest her than supporting the values of the actual progressives who got her in office. In hopes that if her margin of victory is less than Spitzer's, she might not run for president, I'll be voting for the Green, whom I know nothing about but I assume is an unserious far-left type.

--Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General. This guy has a personality about as attractive as the vomit sometimes left on my floor by the cat with the heart murmur. Cuomo helped torpedo a very good man, Carl McCall, in a bitter gubernatorial primary campaign four years ago. He's a second-generation pol, and we aren't a hereditary monarchy. But his Republican opponent, Jeanine Pirro, is even more repulsive: she began this cycle running against Clinton, made an astounding mess of it, quit that race, launched this one, and has gotten more attention for her philandering felon husband (a big wheel in the Republican Party here) than any of her positions. I don't know if there's a third-party option. If so, I'll take it.

--Alan Hevesi, Comptroller. A candidate for re-election, Hevesi seemed to do a good job in his first term after holding the same position at the NYC level. But he illegally used a state car to ferry around his wife, at a total cost nearing six figures, and lied about it for years. Spitzer disavowed him and won't work with him. His Republican opponent is an extremist who seems about as committed to fiscal oversight and good government as his co-partisans at the federal level, and looks like the fat principal from "Head of the Class." I might sit this one out.

--Yvette Clarke, U.S. House of Representatives. Possibly the worst of this whole bunch. Clarke is another second-generation pol, her mom was a crook, she's the sort of strident special-pleader Democrat I can't stand, she narrowly beat three far superior candidates in a bitter primary dominated by race, and I think she's running unopposed. No idea how I'll vote here. If there's a Republican, I'd be tempted to cast a protest vote, but for reasons described above I don't think I could bring myself to support any Republican for any federal office.

Honestly, I'd love to see a Republican Party that doesn't show traces of theocracy, oligarchy, and selectively applied fascism, and this is a large part of the reason why: my local Democrats really, really stink. But again, they're mostly just weight on the scale, and right now the top priority is just getting the damn thing back into something resembling balance.

Friday, November 03, 2006

In a Nutshell
The biased liberal media was at work again this week: as I'm sure you noticed, the latte-sipping America-hating Fourth Estaters relentlessly pushed the Republicans' politically motivated decision to publish online documents that happened to include technical data crucial to construct an atomic bomb--while barely mentioning it at all when John Kerry screwed up a joke.

It's not that the Republicans knowingly or intentially published this information; that would be something akin to treason. It's just that they cared more about the potential political gain than the potential risk of providing secrets to would-be mass murderers. (This is the Valerie Plame story: same tune, different words.) The experts complained--and as always in this administration, the politicals blew off the experts. Some details:

Last March, the federal government set up a Web site to make public a vast archive of Iraqi documents captured during the war. The Bush administration did so under pressure from Congressional Republicans who had said they hoped to “leverage the Internet” to find new evidence of the prewar dangers posed by Saddam Hussein.

But in recent weeks, the site has posted some documents that weapons experts say are a danger themselves: detailed accounts of Iraq’s secret nuclear research before the 1991 Persian Gulf war. The documents, the experts say, constitute a basic guide to building an atom bomb.
The documents, roughly a dozen in number, contain charts, diagrams, equations and lengthy narratives about bomb building that nuclear experts who have viewed them say go beyond what is available elsewhere on the Internet and in other public forums. For instance, the papers give detailed information on how to build nuclear firing circuits and triggering explosives, as well as the radioactive cores of atom bombs.
The government had received earlier warnings about the contents of the Web site. Last spring, after the site began posting old Iraqi documents about chemical weapons, United Nations arms-control officials in New York won the withdrawal of a report that gave information on how to make tabun and sarin, nerve agents that kill by causing respiratory failure.

The campaign for the online archive was mounted by conservative publications and politicians, who said that the nation’s spy agencies had failed adequately to analyze the 48,000 boxes of documents seized since the March 2003 invasion. With the public increasingly skeptical about the rationale and conduct of the war, the chairmen of the House and Senate intelligence committees argued that wide analysis and translation of the documents — most of them in Arabic — would reinvigorate the search for clues that Mr. Hussein had resumed his unconventional arms programs in the years before the invasion. American search teams never found such evidence.
In Europe, a senior diplomat said atomic experts there had studied the nuclear documents on the Web site and judged their public release as potentially dangerous. “It’s a cookbook,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of his agency’s rules. “If you had this, it would short-circuit a lot of things.”
Ray E. Kidder, a senior nuclear physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, an arms design center, said “some things in these documents would be helpful” to nations aspiring to develop nuclear weapons and should have remained secret.

A senior American intelligence official who deals routinely with atomic issues said the documents showed “where the Iraqis failed and how to get around the failures.” The documents, he added, could perhaps help Iran or other nations making a serious effort to develop nuclear arms, but probably not terrorists or poorly equipped states. The official, who requested anonymity because of his agency’s rules against public comment, called the papers “a road map that helps you get from point A to point B, but only if you already have a car.”

Thomas S. Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a private group at George Washington University that tracks federal secrecy decisions, said the impetus for the Web site’s creation came from an array of sources — private conservative groups, Congressional Republicans and some figures in the Bush administration — who clung to the belief that close examination of the captured documents would show that Mr. Hussein’s government had clandestinely reconstituted an unconventional arms programs.

“There were hundreds of people who said, ‘There’s got to be gold in them thar hills,’ ” Mr. Blanton said.

This is actually a perfect manifestation of the two trademarks of Bush/Cheney/DeLay-era Republicanism: raw political calculation mixed with astonishing incompetence and irresponsibility. Wouldn't it be a basic point of due diligence to figure out what's in the files before posting them online?

This story broke in the same 24-hour period as the news that the Republicans were going to fire the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction, who has been investigating fraud and waste among contractors; and that the publications of the four newspapers of the military are about to call for Donald Rumsfeld's dismissal. I will be very surprised if all three of these news items--which I think most observers would agree are fairly significant--get nearly as much ink and air time as Kerry's flubbed lines.

And that kind of brings me to a larger thought about the election, three days and change before polls open. This really might be the last shot to reign in the people whose bad ideas, bad management and bad belief systems are corroding the power, and the soul, of this nation. I knew that if we didn't win in 2004, some awful things were going to happen; in the space of about a year, we saw New Orleans all but destroyed without an effective federal response and we've seen the death of habeus corpus and the embrace of torture as national policy. The economy hasn't collapsed, but it's wobbling. Iraq has gotten even worse. And this Congress spent less time in session, did less work for the public, and endured more black marks of members' corruption and immorality than any in memory.

If we truly did have the parliamentary system that our politics has come to suggest, this would be easier: I don't doubt that the electorate would simply vote the Democrats into a majority. But since you can't cast a national vote, it remains quite possible that while the substantial majority will vote Democratic, the majority in one or both houses will remain Republican. The direction of the country, whether we keep digging this hole or start to climb out of it, might depend on one or two million voters clustered in about 20 House districts in Ohio, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Arizona and a handful of other areas.

However it comes out, that somehow doesn't sit right.